[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Hunter S. Thompson) Gonzo Nights

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Gonzo Nights
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17

[You'll have to click on the sites to get the java links.]

    Published: April 17, 2005

    [16]Hunter S. Thompson Reads From 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
    The author reads from a favorite passage: "We had all the momentum; we
    were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave." Recorded during
    Rich Cohen's interview with Hunter S. Thompson in October 2004.

    [17]On the Early Years
    Growing up in Louisville, Ky.; odd jobs in San Francisco.

    [18]On the Meaning of Gonzo
    The etymology of the word and what it means in practice.

    [19]On Politics
    The American dream; the Reagan and Bush years; the author's own
    attempt at running for office.

    [20]Featured Author: Hunter S. Thompson

    Last fall, I traveled to Woody Creek, Colo., to talk to Hunter S.
    Thompson for what turned out to be one of his final interviews. For
    years, Thompson had been trapped in the persona he created in his
    30's, forever forced to play Hunter S. Thompson. More than drugs, this
    was the monkey on his back: he was frozen in the role of the insider's
    outsider, on call for every would-be rebel who wanted to party with
    the madman. At the end, he was writing a column for ESPN.com and the
    occasional article, but mostly he was just being Hunter S. Thompson, a
    show that began each night in his house outside Aspen at around 5 with
    the first stirrings of bedsheets. A groan. A string of expletives. An
    assistant who hurries into the kitchen like an emergency room nurse.
    ''He's awake! He's awake!''

    On my first night, the TV was turned to ''Monday Night Football,'' a
    tall glass was filled with ice cubes and Chivas Regal, and a path was
    cleared to his chair at the kitchen counter -- the same chair where, a
    few months later, on Feb. 20, he would kill himself with a pistol
    shot, bringing to a climax his long relationship with guns. Thompson
    was among that group of American writers who knew how to be young but
    never figured out how to grow old: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack
    Kerouac and Eugene O'Neill, who died in a Boston hotel, thousands of
    dollars in debt. (''Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, died in a
    hotel room,'' he said.)

    Appearing in the doorway, Thompson looked less like the pictures on
    the jackets of his books than like a crazy uncle who has gotten into
    the vanilla extract. There was something beautiful and almost Asian
    about his features: when he was young, he was as hard and geometric as
    sculpture. But at the end his face collapsed and his shoulders slumped
    and his body was falling in all around him. He was unwinding like
    yarn. He was tall and skinny, mouth frozen into a sneer.

    ''Clear a path,'' he shouted. He stumbled across the kitchen and fell
    into the chair at the counter. He nodded to the man across the room,
    his friend, the local sheriff, who had shown me the way to the house.
    He reached out his right hand and the drink was there, just there, ice
    clinking. Thompson opened the drawer to his left. It was filled with
    narcotics. As he looked inside, the sheriff said, ''I'll go into the
    other room while you do your drugs, Hunter.''

    He sank a straw into a plastic container and took some cocaine onto
    his tongue. He returned to the drawer constantly in the course of the
    night, getting cocaine, pills, marijuana, which he smoked in a pipe --
    the smoke was soft and tangy and blue -- chased by Chivas, white wine,
    Chartreuse, tequila and Glenfiddich. The effect was gradual but soon
    his features softened and the scowl melted and his movements became
    fluid and graceful. By midnight, the man who had emerged a bleary-eyed
    ruin hours before was on his feet and swearing and waving a shotgun
    and another show had opened in the long run of Hunter S. Thompson.

    Beginning in the early 1970's, when Thompson wrote[24] ''Fear and
    Loathing in Las Vegas'' and [25]''Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign
    Trail '72,'' which both grew out of articles for Rolling Stone, he
    created an image that became an American icon, like the gunslinger or
    the big-city gangster -- the bald, paranoid, drug-frenzied journalist,
    a cigarette holder dangling from the corner of his mouth, doing battle
    with the straight world. He called it gonzo, a style of journalism in
    which the reporter, by his antics, becomes the story. (''It's a
    Portuguese word,'' Thompson told me. ''It means weird, off the wall,
    Hell's Angels would say. Out there. Gonzo, learning to fly as you're
    falling.'') At its best, gonzo was exhilarating, and in many of
    Thompson's stories you glimpse the life the writer made for himself
    outside the law. The freedom and gun-toting and drug-taking of it were
    contagious: more than a body of work, he created a code, a way of
    responding to a nation of rules.

    In 1967, Thompson moved to Woody Creek, just as his career was taking
    off. Before that, he lived in San Francisco, Puerto Rico, New York and
    Louisville, Ky., where he was raised in the years following World War
    II. His family was respectable but not especially well-to-do; his
    father, Jack R. Thompson, was an insurance agent. The young Hunter ran
    with a crowd above his station, debutantes and Gatsby boys riding in
    open cars and wearing white ducks. You can see this in pictures of him
    taken at the time, fresh-faced and broad, lost in a sea of 1950's
    faces, looking more reckless and less comfortable than the others --
    close enough to see the good life but not wealthy enough to live it.

    When Thompson was 17, he went on a bender with friends and was
    arrested on various charges, including under-age drinking. His friends
    got off, but Thompson, without money or connections, took the hit. The
    judge gave him a choice: reform school or the military. In 1956, he
    enlisted in the Air Force and was shipped to Eglin Air Force Base in
    Florida. Even at the end of his life, he spoke of this with real
    anger. ''I was chased out of Louisville,'' he told me. Thompson was
    discharged from the service in 1957, honorably, to the surprise of
    some (''In summary, this Airman, although talented, will not be guided
    by policy or personal advice and guidance. . . . He has little
    consideration for military bearing or dress and seems to dislike the
    service,'' as one personnel report said).

    He wound up in New York, in an apartment near Columbia University,
    then in a house downtown, on Perry Street, where he wrote novels he
    could not sell and stories he could not publish. In the end, he took
    newspaper and magazine assignments, pouring the energy and ideas of
    the thwarted novelist into journalism. His first big success came with
    an article he wrote for The Nation that became the book [26]''Hell's
    Angels'' (1967). Its language and structure were conventional --
    Hunter Thompson was not yet Hunter Thompson -- but the reporting was
    dangerous. To write it, he had immersed himself in a world that
    terrified most people. In the epilogue, he is stomped by members of
    the motorcycle gang and our last image is the writer swerving down the
    highway, escaping his own story -- ''spitting blood on the dashboard .
    . . until my one good eye finally came into focus.''

    His breakthrough into gonzo came in 1970, when the magazine Scanlan's
    Monthly assigned him to cover the Kentucky Derby. While reporting the
    article in Louisville, Thompson met Ralph Steadman, a British artist
    who had been hired to illustrate it. From that moment on, Steadman was
    Thompson's sidekick and muse, the fresh eyes through which Thompson
    could see his own country. Steadman's drawings were stark and crazed
    and captured Thompson's sensibility, his notion that below the plastic
    American surface lurked something chaotic and violent. The drawings
    are the plastic torn away and the people seen as monsters.

    But on this first assignment, when Thompson sat down to write, nothing
    came. He had been so wasted at the Derby: what could he remember? He
    had his reporter's notebook, though, each page filled with a few sharp
    sentences. In the end, he simply tore some pages out and sent them
    over. He was giving up on the idea of creating a traditional
    narrative. Maybe he was giving up on the idea of writing for
    magazines. But the editors loved what he gave them and asked for more.
    When it was set in type and published as ''The Kentucky Derby Is
    Decadent and Depraved,'' the piece announced a new kind of journalism,
    raw and unprocessed -- what you tell your friend about the party the
    moment before you pass out.

    I don't think it's an accident that Hunter Thompson became Hunter
    Thompson by returning to the city from which he had been expelled
    years before. In Louisville, he was able to plug into the old paranoia
    and anger, into his tremendous instinct for vandalism -- anger he was
    then able to transfer from the elite of Louisville to the elite of the

    ''Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,'' the work that made Thompson
    famous, was published in two issues of Rolling Stone in November 1971.
    It gave birth to the legend of Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter ego, who
    then, as ''Uncle Duke,'' became a regular character in the comic strip
    ''Doonesbury''; Thompson would also be played in movies by Bill Murray
    (''Where the Buffalo Roam'') and Johnny Depp (''Fear and Loathing in
    Las Vegas''). In these films, it's less the work that's celebrated
    than the persona. Hunter Thompson is the man who will swallow
    anything. Give him a pill, he takes it, then asks, ''What was that?''
    Drugs played a role for him similar to the role steroids can play in
    the life of a slugger -- they jacked up his production and made him a
    hall of fame player, but destroyed him in the end.

    Which raises the question: Just what place did narcotics have in the
    life and work of Hunter S. Thompson?

    Well, he was an addict. No doubt about that. Addicted to cocaine and
    pills and alcohol. Addicted to being addicted, forever chasing the
    perfect state of chemical balance in which he could write, in which,
    for a moment, as at the end of a long drive, the golf ball hangs, not
    going up, not coming down, and a window opens, and there is clarity.
    But it was more than that, because Thompson's image and antics will
    soon fade and only his words will remain. What will the drugs mean
    then? It seems to me that, starting with ''The Kentucky Derby Is
    Decadent and Depraved,'' Thompson used drugs quite deliberately to
    create a new kind of reportorial voice -- a voice that could be
    listened to but never trusted, because the reporter was hammered and
    seeing trails. By bringing narcotics into his prose, he introduced a
    hallucinatory element into nonfiction writing, his own kind of magic
    realism. He took the American realist tradition and ran it through a
    wood chipper.

    As far as I could tell during the days I spent at the house in Woody
    Creek, things didn't really get going until around 10 p.m., when the
    phone started to ring and people began to show up. One night, Ralph
    Steadman, who was in the country working on a project, came by with
    his wife and a British writer. Steadman laid some drawings on the
    counter. They showed George Bush and members of his cabinet stripped
    to the core, monstrous energies pouring out of skeletal bodies.
    Thompson looked at each of them and smiled. Steadman went into the
    living room. A fire had been lit, but the chimney was not drawing.
    When the wind shifted, the room filled with smoke, though no one
    seemed to care. Thompson had some colorful wigs and everyone was
    drinking and trying them on. He came in waving a scimitar, which he
    told us had been given to him by a pasha. Then he waved a shotgun.

    Steadman's wife said, ''No, no, I do not like this at all.''

    The sheriff said: ''Don't worry. I'm the safety officer.''

    At 2 a.m., a neighbor stopped by. His name was Frank. He gave Thompson
    a gift and the men hugged. Thompson sat in the kitchen, polishing his
    scimitar. He went at it like an obsessive and you could see his face
    crazy and warped in the blade. The windows were black screens and the
    world outside did not exist. ''You're not on the normal clock here,''
    Steadman told me. ''Night is day. That is why Hunter calls it Owl

    Near the end of his life, Hemingway wrote that the worst thing a
    writer can do is read his own work to strangers. Thompson had gone
    beyond that, reaching a point where he made strangers read his work,
    most of it published years before, back to him. Pressing ''The Curse
    of Lono'' into Frank's hands, Thompson said: ''Read it. Read it out

    Frank stood up and began reading slowly, as if turning over each word.
    It was the part of the book where Thompson, or one of his alter egos,
    is in a bar in Hawaii raving about Samoans. At one point, Frank looked
    at Thompson and said, ''What have you got against Samoans?''

    Thompson grunted. ''Keep reading.''

    Frank went through a few more paragraphs, looked up and said, ''Did
    this really happen, or did you make it up?''

    Thompson took the book from Frank and gave it to me. He said, ''Come
    on, read.''

    I did my best, but Thompson kept cursing because I was reading too
    fast. ''Goddamn it! Slow down!'' I tried, but he was soon cursing
    again. ''Slow down! You're reading it like a goddamn journalist. Don't
    read it like it's journalism. It's not journalism. It's poetry!''

    Frank took a swig of something, then said, ''I've got to leave.''

    Then it was just me and Thompson. He rubbed his chin and frowned. His
    face was craggy and deflated and melancholy and old. I asked him if I
    could turn on my tape recorder and do an interview.

    He said: ''Get me the Chartreuse. The green stuff in the bottle.''

    His hands trembled. He said, ''Turn it on.''

    I asked him what writers he had used as models.

    Most of the writers he mentioned had bad ends: Hemingway, Fitzgerald,

    He said, ''Mark Twain has always been one of my basic role models.''

    I said, ''Well, I guess Mark Twain had a good end.''

    He said: ''No, he was lonely and he lived too long. He was never
    accepted as a writer in the New York literary circles. He was deemed a

    Later he slammed his fist on the counter and said, ''Goddamn it, I am
    the best writer working in America today!''

    To make the point, he had me get a copy of ''Fear and Loathing in Las
    Vegas'' down from the shelf. He took a swallow of Chartreuse to clear
    his throat, then read his words into my tape recorder -- he read
    slowly and carefully and not at all like journalism:

    ''There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the
    Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . .
    . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal
    sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . .

    ''And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable
    victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military
    sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was
    no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the
    momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

    ''So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in
    Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes, you can
    almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally
    broke and rolled back.''

    A few hours before, as Steadman was leaving, he stood in the kitchen.
    He and Thompson hugged, then regarded each other at arm's length.
    ''You are a good man,'' Steadman said. ''Thank you, thank you and
    thank you. You've made my life, and you've made my life interesting.''

    Thompson looked down and blushed. He said, ''Get the hell out of

    Rich Cohen, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, is the author of
    ''Lake Effect'' and ''Tough Jews.''


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